The Conversation Gets Louder
In 1996, 30 people gathered at a Best Western hotel in Garland, Texas, to play Quake. The event was organized by gamers over IRC, and by the end of the weekend over a 100 people were in attendance when John Carmack and most of the team from id Software stopped by to investigate the proceedings. In August of 2013, QuakeCon—still an open event but now operated by ZeniMax Media, owner of id and other game development houses—drew over 12,000 people, gave away $150,000 in tournament prizes, and had a dozen panels presented by ZeniMax developers, including a keynote by Carmack.
In the mid-1980s, there were fewer than a dozen periodicals devoted to games or game culture. In order to provide a broadly read source for reviews and information, Nintendo transformed their semi-monthly fan club newsletter into the subscription magazine Nintendo Power. In contrast, the internet of today features hundreds of professional sources for gaming news and commentary, including subsections of traditional outlets like Forbes, and multiples more independent and niche sites. In addition, there are a growing number of sources for scholarly and critical views on interactive media, like Ada, a peer-reviewed journal focused on new media and gender, and Memory Insufficient, an e-zine comprising mainly historical studies of gaming.
Over the last forty years, electronic gaming has grown from a college campus oddity, to a pastime shared by over half of the U.S. population, and the conversation has moved from a handful of fan club newsletters to countless internet forums, and occasionally, the evening news. But as the size of that conversation has increased, its channels have experienced their fair share of growing pains.
The Conversation Between Creators and the Audience
As communication technology has progressed, the gap between creators and their audience has closed. In the early days, the dialogue between the two largely revolved around customer service, fanmail, or providing game tips. Giving feedback wasn’t a common occurrence, though it’s possible some people passed on their thoughts and ideas during one of EA’s Software Artists Tours. And from the corporate side, information flowed outward primarily in the form of promotion. Companies published strategy guides, staged events to let the audience try yet-unreleased games, but it was less dialogue and more marketing.
Today, game designers and studio executives are public figures, reachable on Twitter the same as any college roommate or coworker, and in place of spokesmen like Howard Phillips—dubbed “Gamemaster” during his term at Nintendo—even companies that create offline games hire community managers for the purpose of interacting directly with the audience. This new level of connectivity comes with new expectations about both the tenor and outcomes of those interactions…and abundant stories of when those expectations aren’t met.
Fans, ever passionate about their hobby, are not silent when the experience doesn’t match their assumptions. When the ending to Mass Effect 3 left many feeling hollow, they used a number of outlets to create petitions and send BioWare their demands. Unfortunately, civility was not the rule of the day, and some abused that direct connection to developers to single out and harass members of the development team, including writer Jennifer Hepler.
On the corporate side, Adam Orth became the unwitting face of an unpopular opinion about always-online connectivity in game consoles, and while he clearly stated the opinions were his own, the tone was enough for Microsoft to issue an apology, hoping to wave off any criticism that might be connected to their yet-unannounced game console. The pot was stirred further when, after presenting the Xbox One, Don Mattrick responded to concerns about it being nearly-always-online by callously pointing players to the previous generation product, the Xbox 360. That Microsoft later recanted, saying “Your feedback matters,” is evidence of the impressive power of public opinion, but that the controversy occurred in the first place shows there’s still much to learn about how game companies and their players communicate.
Thankfully, there’s hope. As developers entertain a new model of “games as service,” many are reaching out to fans to have involved dialogues, both about the games and about the culture. Pre-release purchases, access to betas, and developer-hosted forums are now quite common. CCP, creators of the star-faring MMO Eve, have gone so far as to create the player-elected Council of Stellar Management who meet with developers biannually to discuss the course of the game. In CSM white paper, CCP states that players have the “intrinsic, broadly described rights … to freedom from undue external influences, unlimited interaction with other individuals, and influence on how society is legislated.” ArenaNet, developer of the fantasy MMO Guild Wars 2—and for whom I currently work—recently used their official forums to declare the game moving forward would be more strongly based on “collaborative development,” though they’ve also made their expectations of conduct in this collaboration resoundingly clear, showing now hesitation about excising violators from the forums and in-game community.
The Conversation Between Commentators and Creators
The other group involved in the conversation is that of journalism and criticism, though as Solon Scott pointed out in a previous CGP post, the line between traditional game commentary and someone video taping themselves in a Let’s Play is not a rigid one. The current state of the game press is largely informed by its beginnings as a method of promotion, bringing players information about upcoming titles to fuel sales numbers, and providing game tips in order to keep customers happy with their purchases. The oft-crossed line into advertising isn’t lost on the audience or even those who purvey it, and recent years have seen more and more questions about the future of games journalism. Reading Rab Florence’s piece on product placement and journalistic standards—dubbed “Doritosgate” by some—or Tevis Thompson’s piece on BioShock Infinite and review homogeny, it’s easy to see the passions that have driven some outlets to brand themselves as a “no-bullshit source of daily video game news” or promise to deliver “in-depth feature stories and reviews that bridge the gap between criticism and buying advice.”
In his piece that kicked off the series, Terry Schenold talked about the rise of game studies literature since the turn of the millennium, and I too am encouraged by the number of sources for critical explorations of games, not just reviews and press releases. In particular, I’m interested in the pursuit of academic criticism as a source of commentary free from the traditional conflict of interest that new media outlets are unfortunately saddled with. While an online news site may depend on access to developers for timely or exclusive information in order to retain readership, those outside the news sphere can present critical explorations free from worry of being cut off.
The Conversation Between the Audience and Commentators
BUT—permit me this sentence-starting all-caps conjunction—for this to be relevant and productive, for us to have better game culture, there needs to be respectful engagement between critics and the game-playing audience. Terry already detailed some of the backlash against those who attempt to dissect games (his examples of the backlash against Abbie Heppe’s Other M review and Anita Sarkeesian Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project are sound and should be mentioned again), but it just keeps happening, even to those whose thoughtful criticisms of a game like Grand Theft Auto V don’t stop them from awarding it a 9 out of 10. Gamespot should be commended, not just for posting that review in the first place and backing up Carolyn Petit, but for reflecting on whether their method of dealing with criticism—a show called Feedbackula—was contributing to the toxicity of the conversation by giving it a platform, even one that condemns the tone of the response.
The Conversation Comes Full Triangle
I believe in the power of games to speak to their audience, perhaps more deeply than media that’s come before, so I also agree with Alan Au—and here I shamelessly link a third CGP article—“As we move towards a future where games are used to communicate, it’s important to consider what exactly games are saying and whether those ideas are part of the future we want to build.” Since players interact with games on both an aesthetic and systematic level, the underlying meaning can be hard to see. Only through conversation will we be able to unpack that meaning, discuss it critically, and provide feedback to the creators, saying together, “This is how games are, and this is how we will make them better.” So let’s make sure that conversation is a good one.